For Martin Wong, the Chinese American artist who died of AIDS in 1999 at the age of 53, heaven and hell came together in the burned-out tenements and enormous piles of rubble that once filled the Lower East Side. Sitting on the floor in his tiny East Village apartment, wielding a paintbrush in each hand simultaneously, Wong limned unparalleled ethnic fantasias on canvases of considerable size. But even his most severe images of Alphabet City slums -- featured in "Everything Must Go," a retrospective at P.P.O.W. curated by New York artist Adam Putnam -- have a mythic dimension, filling the skies over gritty red-brick cityscapes with timeless constellations.
Everything Must Go (1983), which hangs in the gallery’s largest space, forecasts the inevitable passing of earthly monuments in terms of collapsing urban neighborhoods. An enormous pile of debris -- no doubt the ruins of a building at Rivington and Attorney Street, as inscribed on the faux frame Wong painted around the composition -- sits against a glowing red horizon, while silver constellations of Pegasus and Pisces wheel in the dark sky above. Across the top of the painting, Wong’s stylized signing hands spell out the work’s title like some kind of archaic hieroglyph. On the left, a mysterious ribbon of pale rainbow colors resembles the heavens at dawn.
Another work, I.C.U. (1988), is at first glance a barren scene of tenement airshafts and fire escapes. But this otherworldly complex of sealed brick towers reaches up to the star-dotted heavens like a mystical fortress, complete with all-seeing eye. The silent Zodiac also watches over the slums in a suite of six hexagonal paintings of constellations from 1995, each hemmed in by a frame of bricks and mortar.
In addition to finding beauty in desolate neighborhoods, Wong was attuned to the eroticism of criminal and working-class men, and his paintings could evoke a passion for saintly brutality reminiscent of the writings of Jean Genet or, closer to home, Miguel Piñero. In Cell Door Slot (ca. 1986), imprisoned eyes stare balefully out of a narrow opening between some weather-beaten bars. The almost iconic Angelito (1992) features a dark-skinned man slumping in front of a metal-shuttered storefront, with his head and the folds in his garments outlined in gold.
And the link between toughness and religion is even more overt in Sacred Shroud of Pepe Turcel (1990), a hexagonal portrait of a muscular man seen from the back, standing in front of a jail cell. A white undershirt covers most of his crucifix tattoo, but a hand nailed to the cross can be seen on each of his shoulders.
Some of Wong’s most memorable images press against the picture plane, toying with the formalism that had dominated the preceding decade. Iglesia Pentecostal Mansion de Luz (1985), for example, is a painting of a church sign in front of a building shuttered with locked gates, an image of fiery red darkness titled after light. In the mid-‘80s, Wong put together an entire show of such paintings, composing a desolate ghetto streetscape that found little favor with collectors at the time. Now, almost 25 years later, the work is an icon of intense, everyday spirituality.
FDNY (1998), another of Wong’s painterly double entendres, is a mandala-like gridded tan circle with a brick red center surrounded by oozing grey smoke on a pitch black background. An aerial image of a firefighter’s rescue trampoline, it represents a tenuous promise of safety in the midst of mortal danger. Considering Wong’s raucous sense of humor, not to mention his adventurous personal life, it no doubt also refers to a certain object of gay desire. Prices range from $8,000 to $40,000; the show remains on view till Jan. 30, 2010.
Christian Holstad at Daniel Reich
More glittering debris can be found in Christian Holstad’s "The World’s Gone Beautiful," on view at Daniel Reich until February 2010. A metaphysician of gay identity (and kitsch), Holstad is celebrated for Gilbert-and-George-like photocollages that combine high-key decorative patterns with gay erotica, as well as for edgier installation works, like Leather Beach, his restaging of an underground gay sex club in a grimy abandoned deli near Grand Central Station that was a sensation of the 2006 art season.
With his comparatively tidy current show, Holstad has taken his intimacies into the big-box realm. Eight soft sculptures of shopping carts, presumably from mass-market chain stores like Costco and Wal-Mart (as their titles suggest), sprawl across low white plinths. Reminiscent of deflated parachutes and Dali’s famous melting clock, the objects are allegories of consumption and abandonment, paradoxically made of pseudo-precious fabrics like silver lame and ultrasuede. Wanly conjuring bondage and drag, these powerless simulacra are no longer strong enough to shock.
In addition, a series of riotously colored, large-scale paper collages, meticulous to the point of obsession, line the gallery walls -- portraits of battered trashcans overflowing with various discarded items, each with its own particular color scheme. The containers are posed front of wire fences, rendered in negative space by diamond shapes of paper placed over a darker ground.
Portrait #2 (broken umbrella, dildo, Chinese food and a candle burning at both ends) (2009) is a symphony in shades of gold enlivened by the pink of the dildo, a shrimp, a wreath of black pansies, and the spotted turquoise umbrella. And Portrait #4 (bible, cornbread, broken high heel and a stolen denim purse) (2009) turns a tipped over trashcan into a cornucopia. In addition to the items listed in the title, plastic bags, lipstick, bees coming out of a honeycomb, and a key ring with a copper glitter butterfly can be seen. The sculptures are $25,000 and the collages are $40,000 each.
Wallace Berman at Klagsbrun
Almost half a century ago -- a different time, to be sure -- the California Beat artist Wallace Berman (1927-1976) developed his own collage cosmology, one that was both rougher (and more macho) and somehow more personal. Today, Berman is probably best known for his grids of duochromatic images of a hand holding a small transistor radio (adapted from an ad), replacing each radio speaker with a different image -- a cardinal wearing a hat, a sculpture of Buddha, a football player, a snake, Hebrew letters, an ear.
Made in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the works reference Warhol’s superficial consumerist icons, but add considerable mystery, as if compressing a dark history into the breadth of a palm, magically ready to be broadcast over the airwaves. A selection of Berman’s collages, as well as posters, photos and a film, are on view at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery until Jan. 9.
Born in Staten Island, Berman was a proto-hippie of Russian Jewish origin who grew up in Los Angeles, loved Dada, French Symbolism, drugs and the Kabbalah. Aside from being an artist and poet, Berman was the founder and editor of Semina, an influential hand-printed loose-leaf journal of literature and art that appeared nine times between 1955 and 1964, with works by artists including Artaud, Cocteau, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Jay DeFeo and Bruce Connor. This West Coast magazine’s milieu recently came to life at Grey Art Gallery in "Semina Culture," a 2007 exhibition of letters, postcards, collages and posters (in addition to painting, sculpture and drawings) organized by Michael Duncan and Christine McKenna.
A very small photo of Berman himself can be seen, pasted on a copy of an antique map in Untitled (Two-ton rock) (ca. 1964-1976). His long, straight hair makes him resemble the Jewish actors often cast in old movies as Native Americans. Other collages include the raunchy Untitled (Business Man at Desk) (ca.1964-76), an image of a smarmy businessman standing behind a table, flanked by a large package of Bayer aspirin and a photo of a woman with enormous bare breasts. More topless females can be found lurking behind world leaders in Untitled (Proof, Yalta and Broads in Beige) (n.d.), a satire on the famous meeting between Stalin, Eisenhower and Truman after World War II.
Aleph, an eight-minute film Berman worked on during 1965-66, plays in the smaller gallery. Beginning and ending with footage of someone shooting up, it also includes belly dancing, machinery and neon signs, interspersed with damaged areas and opening reel letters, all in black and white with bits of flesh color and bright red. Berman was tragically killed by a drunken driver when he was only 49. Works in the show can be had now for prices ranging from $8,000 to $450,000.
Tommy Hartung at On Stellar Rays
Ascent of Man, a dark and dreamy animated film by Tommy Hartung, was recently on view at On Stellar Rays on Orchard Street. The piece was inspired by a BBC documentary from 1973 that was written and narrated by Jacob Bronowski, whose portentous voice can sometimes be heard in Hartung’s soundtrack, describing evolution in quasi-religious tones. Bronowski's modernist narrative of scientific progress is replaced with a tragicomic succession of homemade moving tableaux. The miraculous human body becomes a fragmented conglomeration of poorly connected parts, with a sometimes transparent interior represented by a glass container that functions by turn as a terrarium or a fish tank.
A human being lying on a slab, for example, is represented by a sheet of Plexiglas covered with intestine-like white rope. Above is a crude papiér-mâche head, and a pair of shoes placed on photographic light-stands move up and down below. Later, the birth of a baby is shown on a computer screen behind the glass box, now sitting on top of a wriggling leather jacket with two fake hands protruding from the sleeves.
A voluptuous plastic female figurine with two green pigtails then appears, standing thigh-deep in a fish tank of water covered with tiny floating leaves. A white mouse crawls up her body and sits on her head as one of the plaster hands waves outside, as if God is directing creation. The film is priced at $6,000 and comes in an edition of five.
Kuba Bakowski at Scaramouche
Celestial meetings between humans and animals are the subject of "Studies in Natural History," an exhibition by Polish artist Kuba Bakowski on view at Scaramouche at 53 Stanton Street on the Lower East Side until Jan. 10. Ursa Major, Bobrek Bytom Coal Mine (2008), for example, is an underground representation of a heavenly constellation. Deep in a mine, a group of workers with illuminated flashbulbs attached to their helmets (as dirty and earthbound as van Gogh's potato eaters) are arranged in the shape of the constellation. And the c-print Polaris, Summer 2009 features Ursa (the bear) at the top of the world. A female Polish explorer wears a bear mask as she shines another flashlight at the Polar Star, during a fully illuminated polar day.
Travel in time, rather than distance is evoked in Dino, a photograph of a dinosaur skeleton projected on the gallery's old-fashioned steam radiator, the reptile's ribs rhyming with the radiator's coils. A small yellow sculpture of a dead rat pierced by a screwdriver rests in a corner on the weathered linoleum floor, returning the exhibition’s temporal location to the building’s more immediate tenement past. Prices range from $2,200 to $5,500.
Clara Tice at Meredith Ward
Sometimes known as the Queen of Greenwich Village, Clara Tice (1888-1973) was a member of the so-called Arensberg Salon, a group of artists, poets and musicians (with Duchamp, Picabia, Wallace Stevens, Mina Loy and Beatrice Wood among their number) who met at the home of the collector, critic and poet Walter Arensberg. Tice’s drawings were reproduced in magazines and newspapers including Vanity Fair, and she also designed posters, theater curtains, menus and invitation cards. "Naughty or Nice? Dada Drawings by Clara Tice" is a wonderful selection of concise little sketches made between 1915 and 1926, at Meredith Ward Fine Art until Jan. 15.
Seemingly dashed-off black shapes are transformed, on close inspection, into stylish figures and ornate furniture. In Luxurious Bed (1915), for example, a pencil-thin nude woman lies on a large black rectangle decorated with fringe, resting her head on an enormous pillow adorned with tiny tassels. Pretty Sofa is an image of a maid with an enormous bow on her head, serving a weary young socialite who relaxes on a curlicue couch. And the bizarre Cocktail Shaker features a man with an Egyptian profile, a turban and puffy harem pants, pushing a transparent coffin-shaped cart. A naked blond female (possibly dead) lies inside, with her hands folded piously on her chest.
Also on display is a 1924 photo of Tice by Nickolas Muray (known for his portraits of Frida Kahlo). With the flapper’s bob and fringe hairstyle of a 1920s vamp, she sits gracefully on a pillow on the floor, embracing an enormous Russian wolfhound. Prices range from $5,000 to $12,000, and half the drawings are sold.
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and writer.